Thursday, September 18, 2008

What I've learned from selling and (almost) buying cars on Craigslist

This may be of some help to you if you ever find yourself in the situation we found ourselves in last month.

A not-quite-right sound began eminating from our 98 Sienna somewhere between Ohio and Iowa on our trek to the mid-west in July. As it got louder and louder, and through a series of other oddities, we were forced to take it to a dealer where we learned that a bearing was going inside the transmission.

This was unnerving, because in addition to the literally thousands of dollars we had dumped into the thing over the course of just 15 months that we owned it, we were in Waterloo, IA and needed to get back to Raleigh. We were advised to not make the trip by one mechanic. The other thought it would be ok and we could decide what to do when we got back.

We took our chances and made it back.

Shortly after that, I began to notice some odd things going on with my car (98 626). After having it examined I learned the following things were about to break: The radiator was just about rusted out, the transmission cooling lines were clogged (due to the rust, probably), the transmission fluid was (as a result) burnt, the bearings were shot in both front wheels, and the whole front end was rusting out and would need to be replaced soon.

So, two vehicles that were going to need some serious money to repair and upkeep, and in both cases, the amount of money needed for their survival was much more than they were worth.

Now, allow me to get to my point: Our decision was to sell both vehicles. Who's gonna take them? Carmax? They took them for a little spin and made their offers. Not too impressive, but at least we had something.

How about Craigslist?

OK--so here's where it gets interesting. if you peruse the auto for sale section of Craigslist, you will discover there are two types of sellers.

The first kind of seller has owned the car for a long time and it is in "mint," "perfect," or "like new" condition, even if it is five or eight years old. It has a lot of miles, but they're highway miles, which somehow is supposed to ease your mind about just how many there are. It's clean. He has all the maintenance records so you can see how much money he's already put into it. He may list a blue book value which is meaningless because it is only an average of what people are asking for that particular model, not what they're actually getting for it. These people have an emotional attatchment either to their vehicle or to the care they've given the vehicle and as a result, they expect you to acknowledge this and reward them by paying a little (or a lot) more than you would from a licensed reseller.

The second kind of seller (this was me in both cases) recognizes that their car is a piece of junk. It may be nearly falling apart, but those issues, though perhaps mentioned in the interest of disclosure, are de-emphasized while superficial qualities of the vehicle (leather, CD player, cruise, A/C) are exaggerated. "Please, yes, I know the puddle of oil in the driveway is not good, but hey, it has an antenna that goes up and down!" These sellers are happy to just get rid of it. They want something for it-- as much as possible--(and certianly more than Carmax), though they'll probably take just about anything you offer them before you walk away.

I was upfront about all the known issues with both of my cars, both in the ad and in person. I let people take them for a test drive and sold both vehicles within 24 hours of their listings, a week apart from one another. Neither of the buyers asked if they could take the car to a mechanic (which I would have certainly permittied--though I never suggested it), but both brought "a guy" who knew a little something about cars, looked it over, and gave his blessing to the sale.

I interracted with a guy who was "me" a week later, trying to sell a Honda Civic. It had over 200k miles on it. He was a mechanic and put some time and money into it. I think he really liked the car and hated to get rid of it. At least that's what he wanted me to think. He had replaced the timing belt, made some interesting alterations to the thing, and was pretty proud of it. He faultered when I asked him if I could take it to my mechanic to have him look it over. He eventually agreed. My mechanic strongly advised against me buying it. I didn't. Looking back, best $40 I ever spent.

The Lord provided us with a car my mechanic was about to sell that he had worked on for several years and I felt pretty good about: his mother in-law's car. So I've got the old lady car, a Buick Century, but it does what it's supposed to do, and I'm grateful.

The person-to-person transaction was a great experience each time. Unfortunately I had to expeerience it three times in two weeks, plus a dealer exchange (that's another post). Use Craigslist to buy and sell, it's a great tool, but I believe you will quickly be able to place every ad into one of the categories given above. This may help you in your negotiations.